According to award-winning journalist Robert Fisk, British soldiers, German U-boat crews and even Prince Philip slipped into Donegal for rest and recreation during WWII.
Writing in The Independent last Saturday, Fisk, an expert on the history of the period, recalled: “Several Royal Navy officers regularly arrived in Donegal to go duck shooting at Drumbeg and Lough Eske in 1940.
“One of them, so they told me in the village of Inver, courted a girl who worked in a local post office.
“His name? RN Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, later Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.”
The story was brought to his mind because a reader had contacted him about the persistent rumour that German U-boats had refuelled in Donegal during the war.
The son of a former British Army Special Operations Executive (SEO) had some startling revelations.
In 1940, the man’s father was sent, along with five members of 30 Commando, Royal Marines, to prepare and supply explosives for 15 marines and two officers who were aboard the ‘Royal Fleet Auxiliary Tugboat Tamara’ which was disguised as a trawler.
From researching his thesis while at Trinity College, Robert Fisk knew that the Tamara had spent a number of weeks searching for German U-boats off the west coast of Ireland. These searches were thought to have been fruitless.
However, the SEO’s son, who asked not to be named, told Fisk: “Father regularly, as did many British servicemen, changed into civvies and nipped across the Eire border for a crafty drink. He usually went to the village of Dunfanaghy. Favourite haunts were... Molly’s Bar, Arnolds Hotel and McGilloway’s.
“My father told me that one of the Irish landlords insisted he did not go into the snug since ‘other gentlemen officers’ were already there.
“He sneaked a look and discovered these were U-boat officers, whose craft were laying up in remote inlets on the coast, come ashore for unofficial R and R, and wearing their uniforms because Ireland was neutral.”
Fisk writes that newly released British Cabinet papers “suggest U-boat sightings in 1939 west of the Blasket Islands and near Bundoran, County Donegal”.
The papers state that although “there was... no evidence proving the existence of refuelling bases, there was evidence that U-boats were... quite possibly... landing crews for purposes of relaxation and obtaining fresh provisions.”
According to Fisk, the papers show that Guy Liddell, the director of wartime British counter-espionage, wrote that he had asked Colonel Liam Archer of Ireland’s G2 military intelligence about U-boat landings. The alleged reply was: “They are here in force, we can’t do anything.”
On the other hand, in 1979, not long before he died, Frank Aiken, IRA veteran and wartime minister of “coordination for defensive measures” told Fisk that “no German U-boat landed on the Irish coast – if it had done, I think I would have heard about it.”
And, according to Fisk, that was most likely the case.
Ironically, of course, many of the U-boats that visited Donegal may well have found their final resting place just off its shores.
After the Germans surrendered in 1945, the Allies destroyed nearly all of the U-boat fleet by sinking 116 of them in the ocean off Malin Head.